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April Books

The Daily — Apr 13, 2021
Alfred Hitchcock

Two immigrants who became forces to be reckoned with in the Hollywood of the mid-twentieth century, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, open this month’s overview of new and noteworthy titles. Rather than following the straight biographical route from the childhood in London to the overdue honorary Oscar, Edward White takes a thematic approach in The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense. With chapters devoted to the director’s relationships with women, religion, food, and so on, “White’s book is a perceptive, plainspoken, and vigorous portrait of an exceedingly strange, complicated, and perhaps deeply wounded man,” writes novelist John Banville for the New Republic. “If Hitchcock was not a genius, certainly he had a genius for entertainment, though of a decidedly dubious kind.”

Reviewing Twelve Lives for the New York Times, Parul Sehgal notes that the “traditional task of the Hitchcock biographer has been to locate the defining event that became the wellspring for his lifelong interest in paranoia, surveillance, and sexual violence.” White “indulges these explanations while subtly shifting the focus to what Hitchcock rarely discussed—the death of his father and the strain of living through war—‘the very type of tortuous suspense and grinding anxiety that was the adult Hitchcock’s stock in trade.’ Neighborhood children and infants died in the air raids, and White suggests that The Birds—with the attacks on a school, and the pioneering aerial shots—can be seen as Hitchcock’s way of reliving the terror.”

David Thomson, best known for writing and then periodically revising his Biographical Dictionary of Film, has a new book out, A Light in the Dark: A History of Movie Directors, with chapters devoted to Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, and a dozen others, including, of course, Hitchcock. For Thomson, it was Psycho that “foresaw so much about where cinema was going, and it let us know how sinister Hitch had always been,” he writes in an excerpt up at Literary Hub. “A knowing cinema of cruelty—beyond mere exploitation—had been ordained.”

Peter Bogdanovich recommends Thomson’s book in a short review for Air Mail: “That I agree more or less with most of Thomson’s opinions is obviously helpful, but it’s his writing that really works brilliantly.” Also at Air Mail is a piece from Edward White on the steady stream of letters Hitchcock received throughout his professional life. White notes that his subject “took pains to present himself in contradictory guises: he was simultaneously a vaudevillian and a serious artist, a plain conformist and an ironical taboo-buster, a Victorian relic and a twentieth-century pioneer.”

When Billy Wilder arrived in Hollywood in 1933, six years before Hitchcock came over, he had written a fair number of screenplays, but more importantly, as Noah Isenberg argues in an excerpt at the Paris Review from Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna, he’d been a newspaper man. You can draw a pretty straight line, suggests Isenberg, between the Tiller Girls, “the world-famous British female dance troupe” that Wilder interviewed for a Viennese tabloid, and Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators, the all-girl band in Some Like It Hot (1959).

Wilder landed that job after walking in on the paper’s chief theater critic, “a certain Herr Doktor Liebstöckl,” as he was shtupping his secretary. The “sex-starved men” in The Major and the Minor (1942), Love in the Afternoon (1957), and The Apartment (1960) “bear a strong family resemblance to Herr Liebstöckl,” writes Isenberg. Wilder’s adventures on various beats informed his screenplay for The Daredevil Reporter (1929), which in turn, “lays a foundation for other hard-boiled newspapermen in Wilder’s Hollywood repertoire, from Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) in Ace in the Hole (1951) to Walter Burns (Walter Matthau) in The Front Page (1974).”


The Making of . . .

Segueing from the old to the New Hollywood, we turn to Glenn Frankel’s Shooting Midnight Cowboy: Art, Sex, Loneliness, Liberation, and the Making of a Dark Classic. The book is “generous with context, but it is, essentially, the biography of a movie,” writes Louis Menand, who then proceeds to outline that context in the New Yorker, focusing in particular on the shifting fortunes of the main players, the decline of New York in the late 1960s, and the loosening of Production Code restrictions.

Frankel is “a smooth writer and sure-footed narrator who uses this volume to excavate the cultural landscape of postwar America,” writes James S. Hirsch in the Washington Post, “the entrenched homophobia, the shameless exploitation of women, the corrosion of our cities. But even good books about great movies have limits. In this case, squeezing more than 300 pages of prose from a 113-minute film does not always come easily.” But for Charles Kaiser in the Guardian, Shooting Midnight Cowboy is “the first essential work of cultural history of the new decade.”

In an excerpt that the Hollywood Reporter is running from Raging Bull: The Making Of, Jay Glennie talks with Martin Scorsese about the inspiration behind the astonishing fight sequences. The idea, Scorsese explains, was to keep the camera in the ring and conjure the scene as Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) would have experienced it. “And when we see three body punches, or two left hooks,” Scorsese tells Glennie, “we break them up as if they are bars of music, like certain scenes on New York, New York or The Last Waltz. We were choreographing a dance. But what really solidified it in my mind was the ballet interlude from Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. Rather than seeing a proscenium framed ballet performance, as if we were sitting in an audience, the film takes us to another realm where we experience what the ballerina experiences and feels as she dances. It’s very, very complex to achieve. It is like a dream sequence, more a hallucination, in the performer’s and fighter’s mind.”

Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo turns twenty-five this year, and throughout the press campaign leading up to the film’s release, “the Coens maintained that each and every fold and crease of Fargo’s plot, every twist and every turn, was based in reality, based on events that had transpired as gruesomely as they retold them,” writes Nige Tassell in an excerpt at Literary Hub from And It’s a Beautiful Day. “They were gobsmackingly brazen about it.”

Literary Crossovers

Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography has become one of the most talked-about books of the season, and the general consensus is that if you have time for only one review, make it Laura Marsh’s in the New Republic. The Hollywood Reporter, in the meantime, has posted an excerpt in which Bailey addresses Roth’s complicated relationship with cinema—and with Nicole Kidman and Al Pacino, among others involved in turning his books into movies. “Roth found verbal precision more lasting than the pictorial kind,” writes Bailey, “and was forever annoyed when a TV or radio spot about him and his work opened with, say, a clip from Goodbye, Columbus (the first movie based on a Roth book), as if the one had anything to do with the other.” But with the possible exception of James Schamus’s 2016 adaptation of Indignation, Goodbye Columbus, directed by Larry Peerce in 1969, remained for Roth the least abominable movie based on his work.

The Library of America has posted an essay from its forthcoming collection Joan Didion: The 1980s & 90s. “L.A. Noir” is a 1989 dispatch to the New Yorker from what would become known as the Cotton Club murder trial. Long story short, the case drew media attention due to what turned out to be a merely tangential connection to Robert Evans, the producer credited with reviving Paramount in the early 1970s with his work on Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, The Godfather, and Chinatown, and by the late 1980s, as Didion puts it, “a district attorney’s dream: a quite possibly desperate, quite famously risk-oriented, high-visibility figure with low-life connections . . . There was always in the Cotton Club case a certain dreamland aspect, a looniness that derived in part from the ardent if misplaced faith of everyone involved, from the belief in windfalls, in sudden changes of fortune; in killings, both literal and figurative.”

Let’s also note that the Library of America has recently hosted “The Great American Western on Page and Screen,” a conversation with Geoffrey O’Brien, Terrence Rafferty, Gene Seymour, and Imogen Sara Smith. A follow-up post gathers relevant book and movie recommendations from each of the participants.

Autobiographies

Sharon Stone does write about her experiences on the sets of such films as Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992) and Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995) in her memoir, The Beauty of Living Twice, but most of the book is taken up with her troubled childhood, and as the title suggests, her brushes with death. At Vulture, Jennifer Zhan counts “nine times she looked death squarely in the eyes and lived to tell the tale.”

Stone discusses the book and its writing with Dave Itzkoff in the New York Times and with Michael Schulman in the New Yorker, and Vanity Fair is running a generous excerpt in which Stone writes about a crucial acting teacher and about her long and arduous fight to land the role of Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct. And of course, about that most famous scene and her decision to allow Verhoeven to keep it. “Why? Because it was correct for the film and for the character; and because, after all, I did it,” she writes. Faye Dunaway accompanied Stone to the premiere, and “when the film ended, there was absolute silence. Faye grabbed my arm and whispered, ‘Don’t move,’ and I didn’t. Neither did Michael [Douglas], in the seat in front of me. He looked left and right, at the producers and at Paul. Finally, after what seemed like forever, the crowd began to scream and cheer. ‘What now?’ I said to Faye, to which she replied, ‘Now you are a big star and they can all kiss your ass.’”

Vanity Fair also has Hadley Hall Meares’s latest Old Hollywood Book Club column, and the subject this time around is Errol Flynn and his autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, published almost immediately after his death in 1959. “From his early days biting off sheep testicles on an Australian farm to his reign as an international superstar,” writes Meares, “Flynn recounts his amoral adventures in deceptively eloquent prose that blunts his often sordid stories. Whether he was learning to drink odorless vodka on set from Ann Sheridan, smoking weed with Diego Rivera, wooing Princess Irene of Romania, or using cocaine on the tip of his penis as an aphrodisiac, Flynn was out for himself, with little care for the wreckage he left along the way. ‘I am dangerous to be with because, since I live dangerously, others are subject to the danger that I expose myself to,’ he writes. ‘They, more likely than I, will get hurt.’”

Pictures on Paper

In a brief appreciation for the Telegraph of Lucinda Gosling’s new book, John Hassall: The Life and Art of the Poster King, director Mike Leigh recalls his childhood fascination with the illustrator whose work appeared in books and newspapers and on posters for theatrical, and very occasionally, movie productions. “Hassall’s gallery bursts with warmth and humanity, comic vision and acute observation,” writes Leigh. “I loved them, and they were unquestionably an early influence on my notions about depicting people . . . I’d have loved to have seen his poster for Abigail’s Party.

Stephen Herbert recommends Discovering Lost Films of Georges Méliès in Fin-de-Siècle Flip Books (1896–1901), “which opens up a whole world of early cinema fascination, generally unrecognized until 2013 when some researchers, collectors, and archivists started to take a deep interest in these little paper/cinema relics and formed a project, resulting in this book.” The volume features an introduction by Jacques Malthête and contributions from Thierry Lecointe, Pascal Fouché, Robert Byrne, and Pamela Hutchinson. For those interested in learning more, Herbert suggests that a “good place to start is Charles Musser’s chapter ‘A Cornucopia of Images: Comparison and Judgment across Theater, Film, and the Visual Arts during the Late Nineteenth Century’ in the highly recommended book Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film, 1880-1910.

Endnotes

Srikanth Srinivasan has launched another of his invaluable translation projects. Over the coming weeks and months, he’ll be posting chapters from Luc Moullet’s 2012 book on Cecil B. DeMille, The Emperor of Mauve. And by the way, if you’re interested in reading Moullet on Jean Eustache, here’s a piece that ran in Film Comment in 2000.

Sabzian is currently rolling out a series of five dossiers that make up Out of the Shadows, the book on Arab female directors it’s publishing in collaboration with Courtisane and KASK School of Arts. We now have plenty to read about Assia Djebar and Jocelyne Saab, and we can look forward to forthcoming dossiers on Heiny Srour, Selma Baccar, and Atteyat Al-Abnoudy.

Let’s wrap with a note on a forthcoming publication. Next month, Strange Attractor will release The Otherwise, a screenplay for a never-realized horror movie written by the late founder and frontman of The Fall, Mark E. Smith, and screenwriter Graham Duff. It’s the story of a recording session gone haywire when the legendary post-punk band is attacked by Satanic bikers and haunted by Scottish clansmen “who have slipped through time from the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.”

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